In her acclaimed book, How To Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, the Turkish author Ece Temelkuran writes that one of the key staging posts on the journey to tyranny is to “remove the shame”. When “morality is exiled from public life and isolated in the private space of the individual, to be enjoyed only at certain times in our day”, a political system is already in serious trouble.
This week, Sue Gray is expected to deliver her final report on so-called “partygate” – free to do so, now that the Met’s investigation into Downing Street’s many festivities and Covid rule breaches during the pandemic is complete. And if her interim findings, published on 31 January, are any guide, the full version, including names, images and details – the director’s cut, as opposed to the teaser trailer – should be quite something.
Even when seriously restricted by the ongoing police inquiry, Gray condemned “a serious failure to observe not just the high standards expected of those working at the heart of Government but also of the standards expected of the entire British population at the time.”
There was, she wrote four months ago, “too little thought given to what was happening across the country in considering the appropriateness of some of these gatherings, the risks they presented to public health and how they might appear to the public. There were failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet Office at different times. Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place. Other events should not have been allowed to develop as they did.”
Ouch. And that, remember, was just the second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office getting warmed up. This week’s report will be altogether more personal, unrestrained and generally nerve-jangling for Number 10, as its always-busy line-drawing department seeks, once and for all, to draw a line under partygate.
Witness, too, the farcical briefing and counter-briefing over the weekend about a meeting last month between Boris Johnson and Gray, and who, precisely, initiated the appointment. To watch Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, squirming on the Sunday political shows when pressed on this matter was a toe-curling experience.
“What is transparent about a meeting between the PM and the person responsible for deciding his political future?” asked the BBC’s Jo Coburn. Zahawi looked as though he was reading from an autocue piped into his retinas by David Canzini, the PM’s recently-hired enforcer, and might pass out at any moment. Meanwhile, unnamed “allies” of the prime minister were accusing Gray of “playing politics” – a happy match on the Westminster Tinder app between kettle and pot.
Whatever her final report says, you can be sure that Johnson will once again express unqualified contrition, assure the Commons that he always acted in good faith (even if he accidentally and unaccountably strayed from the path of righteousness), and promise further reforms in response to Gray’s findings.
We also know that when the PM accepts criticisms of his leadership, his default response is to sack those he leads – officials, advisers, ministers, anyone really. It is an unshakeable axiom of the Johnson worldview that when he makes mistakes, others must pay the price for leading him astray.
So – depending upon the severity of this week’s report – further senior figures may discover in the days to come that, unfortunately, it was their fault all along that Downing Street turned into a sort of sweaty Tory speakeasy during the pandemic. Johnson always wanted to be “World King”. But never underestimate his enthusiasm, when the chips are down, to present himself as “Supreme Victim.”
Brace yourself, too, for three especially idiotic and egregious arguments:
- Everyone was breaking or bending the law during the pandemic: No, they absolutely were not. Rules which may now seem petty or excessive were, for many months, the warp and weft of daily life in a country trying to suppress infection levels by any means available. In that unique context, the Downing Street parties were not peccadilloes or mere technical breaches but a monstrous affront to the way that the vast majority of people were behaving. At a time when ordinary families were unable to visit dying relatives in hospital, when morgues were overflowing, when funerals were tragically limited in scale to prevent transmission – well, karaoke nights, BYOB parties, and quizzes were no laughing matter.
- Voters don’t care about partygate – only the cost-of-living crisis: A false dichotomy that gravely underestimates the intelligence of the electorate: why should a government so disdainful of the rest of the country’s sacrifices during the pandemic be trusted in 2022 to understand and act upon its hardships and – in many cases – cases of outright indigence? Why on earth would you expect a PM who presided over a private culture of carousing, while hundreds of thousands died in cramped wards, to be capable of grasping and dealing with neediness on this sudden scale?
- It is time to move on: It is true that the public is heartily sick of the scandal, and understandably so. But exasperation should not be confused with forgiveness: more than three quarters of Britons think the PM lied about the parties, and, depending on the company responsible for the polling, between 47 and 61 per cent think he should resign. The parties which have resulted in fines took place between 20 May 2020, and 16 April 2021. This is scarcely the Palaeolithic period, is it? We have not yet “moved on” fully from Brexit, after all, and that started with the referendum six years ago. Also: bear in mind that, as a rule of thumb, when a politician says it is time to “move on” it is almost certainly not. There is no statute of limitations on idiocy or contempt for the public.
We should reflect, too, upon the use of the word “only” in public discussion of this scandal. In the past few days, Downing Street has made much of the fact that the PM, his wife, Carrie Johnson, and Rishi Sunak were “only” given one fine each – as if this should be grounds for national pride and celebration. How many fines per person, one wonders, would have been grounds for shame?
In total, the Met issued 126 fixed penalty notices to 83 people in connection with eight events, which means that Number 10 holds the dubious distinction of being the address associated with most pandemic fines. I am as sure as I can be that, in such circumstances, every other prime minister since the war would already have resigned. Johnson sees absolutely no need to do so, and his parliamentary party has completely lost the will to defenestrate him.
Naturally, the horrors of Ukraine have transformed the political landscape and made Conservative MPs wary of a leadership crisis that might weaken Western unity. Jeremy Hunt (who would make a conspicuously better prime minister than Johnson) spoke for many of his colleagues yesterday when he said to Sky’s Sophy Ridge: “Something that makes Vladimir Putin happy at this moment is precisely what we don’t want when we have the first European war in our lifetimes.”
Yet foreign crises – however serious – should not represent a free pass in times of domestic scandal. Nixon tried this in October 1973 as tensions soared between Israel and Syria and Egypt: nuclear confrontation between the US and Soviet Union became a clear and present danger. The desperately damaged president postured as the indispensable global statesman. But he still had to resign over Watergate in August 1974.
As things stand, it seems extremely unlikely that Johnson will go in the near future. He has, for now, outmanoeuvred his own craven tribe which, for all its reservations, cannot forget that he inherited a party in 2019 that had secured only 9 per cent in the European elections and delivered an 80-seat Commons majority less than seven months later.
Unless Gray’s full report is unspeakably dire, they will not act. Instead, they will yet again kick the ethical can down the road, waiting for the Commons privileges committee to rule on whether Johnson misled the House, waiting for the by-elections on 23 June in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, waiting for – well, something else to wait for.
The more important question is: how do the rest of us feel about this? When Lord Denning’s report on the Profumo affair was published in September 1963, members of the public queued for hours to get hold of a copy. True, that particular scandal was much more salacious than partygate: a saga of sex, spies and osteopaths. But the core problem was the same.
As Denning put it: “It was the responsibility of the Prime Minister and his colleagues, and of them only, to deal with this situation: and they did not succeed in doing so”. In 1963, the public was mesmerised by this failure. Harold Macmillan resigned only a few weeks after the report was published and, in 1964, the Conservatives were defeated after 13 years in office.
Indeed, in one sense, partygate is worse than the Profumo affair. True, it lacks the sheer sensationalism of the Secretary of State for War sharing a lover with a Russian spy (and then lying to the Commons about it). But at no point was Macmillan’s government found to have flagrantly and repeatedly broken its own laws; to have been so systemically indifferent to the very rules it imposed upon everyone else.
There is a certain strain of English elite culture which dictates that one should not get hot under the collar about what Jacob Rees-Mogg calls “fluff”. I am in the opposite camp: coolness under the collar may well have held the Empire together, catapulted a series of Etonians to the highest office in the land, and insulated the right sort of chaps from excessive scrutiny. But this is not a moment for such indulgence, or unwarranted calm, or unmerited mercy.
To put it another way: democracies are eroded by the killer combo of apathy and polarisation. As I’ve said already, I don’t believe that the British public is quite as unbothered by partygate as Number 10 would like. But it is true that attention spans are shorter than they were, that people have plenty of other things to be worried about, and that it is hard to keep the national focus upon the legal specifics of a case like partygate indefinitely.
Johnson knows this, which is why it is all the more important not to yield to the lazy narrative that it is time for all of us to “move on”. It would suit the PM if we did. But it would also leave unaddressed a grave corrosion of our democracy: the gravest over which he has so far presided (against stiff competition).
As Lincoln said in 1838: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” That warning holds good in our own age. The future of our democracy lies not in Johnson’s hands – on that, we can surely agree? – but in our own.
Which is why the question to ask this week is not what Sue Gray can do to cleanse our battered political system of its poisons and blights, but what we, as a democratic nation in danger of losing its soul, can do to stop anything like this happening again. In fact, it is the only question that matters.